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Book Reviews

This section includes reviews by landscape professionals on publications of interest to their colleagues.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of NELDHA, its members, Perspectives Editorial Staff or the Board of Directors.

What A Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses

what-a-plant-knows-cover-webWhat A Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses. Daniel Chamovitz. New York: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. Pp. 177. $23.00 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Rose Marques

Plants are programmed to grow, reproduce to ensure the species’ survival, maybe feed us somewhere along the line and then die a quiet death that benefits the earth by returning borrowed nutrients. That about sums up the excitement of a plant’s life, right? Wrong.  

What a Plant Knows expands our understanding of our leafy co-habitants and compares their intricate processes to those of humans in the areas of seeing, smelling, feeling, hearing, knowing and remembering. A well-researched, scientific work, this book establishes its arguments in an accessible language delivered in an engaging manner. Author Daniel Chamovitz first carefully sets out parallels between human anatomy and plant botany, then compares and contrasts the processes and functions of both species. Throughout this work, the latest research and scientific theories are clearly presented, and old myths debunked where necessary.

In short, credible scientific research has shown that plants “see,” “smell,” “feel,” “know,” and “remember.” Plants are very aware of their environment in these ways. Plants can differentiate between red, blue, far-red and UV lightwaves and respond accordingly. They are aware of aromas around them and are thus able to respond to minute quantities of volatile compounds swirling in the air. They are aware of being touched and differentiate between various kinds of touch. They know about their orientation because of gravity and can reorient themselves so that shoots grow upward and roots grow downward. And, plants remember certain past events—such as infections and other conditions they have weathered—so as to modify their current physiology. Given these
proven facts, one might say that in a plant’s awareness of its environment, it is also aware of us because we are part of that environment and in some cases creating or enhancing the stimuli.

However, plants and humans differ greatly in other ways. For example, plants do not hear. Thus, contrary to messaging in the popular press, they do not grow better “listening” to Mozart or Led Zeppelin at any volume. No credible evidence has been found to support plants’ audio capabilities. Also, plants do not have feelings, emotions or intellects. They do not “suffer;” they do not sense “pain” as such because they do not have brains to process that sensation.

As engaging as the arguments and newest research are, they are unlikely to cause starvation in vegans. The author stays well within the realm of science and does not personify plants or purport them to be sentient beings. The interesting concepts within these pages are unlikely to spur activists into creating “plants rights groups,” but they do give us new appreciation for the complex miracle that each plant is.  But if after reading the text, you still prefer to talk and sing to your plants because it brings you joy, go right ahead. No one will hear you.  

About the Author: Rose Marques is the principal of the landscape design firm LandMarques. She is a former member of NELDHA’s Board of Directors and is Co-chair of PresNet. She holds a certificate in landscape design from the Landscape Institute.